Give ’em What They Want

Someone asked me recently why so many of my posts deal with religion. It’s a fair question, considering religion comes last in my tagline.

When I began blogging more frequently, I had actually envisioned spending quite a bit more time discussing East Asian politics, Chinese history and literature, Sino-American relations, and other China-related topics that my education gives me somewhat more authority to discuss. I’m no foreign policy expert, and my Chinese isn’t at the point where I peruse PRC white papers over breakfast, but I thought with my penchant for things Chinese and my mild ability to relate international affairs to practical living, maybe my readers would find it worthwhile.

To my dismay, however, my few posts on Chinese culture and sayings are among my least popular posts. Even recent and flippant posts like “Weiner’s Weiner” have received more all-time hits than “Pulling Shoots to Help Them Grow“, which is still one of my favorite posts.

Judging by my stats page, what readers really want are abrasive rants on religion. My posts on religion receive many, many more on-site views, comments, and syndicated views than posts on any other subject. And the more I stray from dispassionate reasoning and toward impassioned raving, the more hits and feedback I receive.

So why do I write about religion so frequently? Here’s half the answer:

STIRFRIES hits per day. The arrows indicate new posts (red for religious posts and green for other posts).


And here’s the other half: I was taught to pray before I learned to ride a bicycle. I know more religious songs than most people know secular ones. I graduated from a 4-year religious seminary and attended a religious university where part of my general education was regular classes in scripture and doctrine. I spent two years as a missionary in Taiwan, where I was taught to feel guilty if I thought about anything BUT religion. And all told, I have spent over a year of my life inside a church building—and that’s excluding classrooms at BYU, all of which are dedicated to God and most of which are used for religious observance on Sundays.

Since I was a child—and until only very recently—my social and family life has revolved around religion. Doubting Thomas and perpetual critic that I am, I have spent thousands of hours considering the role of religion in my life, in society, in human history, its benefits, its drawbacks, its consequences, its veracity.

Religion is what I know. More specifically, doubting religion is what I know. If a few hundred hours of study and a piece of paper that says I know Chinese language, literature, and culture qualify me to comment on Sino-American anything, then a lifetime of theological study, indoctrination, and private criticism give me the right to say a few words about religion.


揠苗助长: Pulling Shoots to Help Them Grow

A man from Song was concerned by his sprouts’ lack of growth and, hoping to encourage them, began pulling them up one by one. When he finished, he returned to his family looking weary and said, “Today has been exhausting! I have been helping the sprouts grow!” His family hastened to go and see it, but the small sprouts had withered.

Few in China are not helping shoots to grow. Those who feel it is useless give it up and quit weeding the sprouts. But as for the one who tries to help them grow by pulling them up, not only is it useless, but it also harms the sprouts.

-from the Book of Mencius, Gongsun Chou, Part I. This (liberal) translation from the classical Chinese is my own.

Takeaway lesson of the day: The phrase “pulling spouts to help them grow” is a moderately common idiom in modern standard Chinese. Most recognize its meaning without knowing the original story above. I’ve posted this today for my friends and colleagues who often ask me about China’s “progress”. Will China democratize? Will China address accusations of human rights abuse? As Mencius aptly states, there are few in China who are not helping the sprouts of progress to grow. However, aggressive domestic reform and overzealous, hypocritical international badgering by western nations is akin to the man from Song pulling his sprouts out of the ground in an attempt to make them grow faster. Radical change in a nation that prides itself in 5,000+ years of relative cultural stability will not take place over night. To be sure, China is changing; the waves of political, social, and cultural reform that began in the early 20th century continue to spread to this day. But do not be so anxious to call for an American-style political revolution in a region where even short-lived dynasties have endured longer than the United States.

Waiting for Suicidal Hares

The enlightened ruler does not expect to follow blindly tradition or convention. Let your present reality be your standard, and establish appropriate measures for society accordingly.

There was a plowman in the Song Dynasty who watched a running hare crash into a stump in his field; the hare broke its neck and died. Hoping to get another hare in the same fashion, the plowman abandoned his plow and watched the stump. He failed to catch another, and the whole kingdom mocked him.

Trying to govern the people of this age using tradition as a guide is the same as watching a stump and waiting for more suicidal hares.

–From Han Feizi, The Five Vermin of the State (translation from the Classical Chinese is my own)


Business Culture in the People’s Republic of China

To most Westerners, Asian culture is an enigma, and attempting to conduct business with Asian companies often feels like opening Pandora’s box. With its burgeoning economies and increasingly prominent and prestigious international status, however, doing business in Asia is a must for western businesses. Specifically, China’s astoundingly massive potential as both a consumer and a producer makes it one of the most desirable locations for doing business. Accordingly, since China’s Open and Reform Policy was instituted by second-generation communist leader Deng Xiaoping, American businessmen and women have been engaged in various and dynamic levels of business cooperation with local Chinese.

My own experience with Chinese business culture last summer (2009) was limited to my interaction with other businesses in Beijing. Our own company, Chin-EASE Corp, was dedicated to providing high-level logistical services to American executives and VIPs. Our primary competitors were companies and groups run by local Chinese. We therefore prided ourselves (and advertised) that each member of our company was a native English speaker—making it all the more convenient for the client to communicate intent, desire, confusion, etc. Though all the members of our organization spoke Chinese to some extent, our primary concern was the comfort and natural ease of our clients while in Beijing. Thus, my experience with Chinese business culture came from my position as a sort of go-between: translator, interpreter, tour guide, and travel companion.

Despite having no interaction with native Chinese within Chin-EASE Corp itself, my position allowed me to constantly interact with Chinese from other businesses and observe (to a limited extent) their internal and external cultural behavior. Among other things, I noticed two significant differences between congruent American and Chinese companies. The first (and most pronounced of the two) was the rigid Chinese tendency to refer to managers/directors/CEOs by their title rather than their name. The second (more subtle, yet still distinct) difference regards internal bureaucracy and decision-making.

For the Chinese, position is everything. Stemming from the Confucian emphasis on social order and proper respect for those in authority, the Chinese pay special attention to those whose official or vocational title is elevated in importance. I once had a Chinese friend tell me that most Chinese would prefer a more prestigious-sounding title to a raise or cash bonus. The reason? Within and without the company, individuals are very often introduced by their title or position, and being called by that title gives an individual a significant amount of face. For example, when I organized an event for the NBA (which had an envoy of players, coaches, trainers, staff, and family visiting for a “Basketball without Borders” campaign), I coordinated with a factory specializing in cloisonné to provide the NBA participants with an opportunity to purchase some traditional Chinese handicrafts. The managing director of sales, a Ms. Guo, referred to herself as “Director Guo” (or “郭经理”) whenever she addressed herself to me in emails, on the phone, or in person. Her staff, when they arrived at the hotel with her, also addressed her thus. Recognizing the importance of her title (both to her personally and in the eyes of her staff), I introduced her using the same title to our company’s CEO. Ms. Guo then introduced me by my title, “Director Burningham” (or “邵主任”). She and her staff seemed a bit amused when I told her that “Director” sounded too formal for my western ears and that they should all please call me by my given name, Ryan (or 邵康).

Perhaps titular importance stems from the inherent (and strict) Chinese adherence to bureaucracy and hierarchy within any given system. Generally, working with the Chinese was a pleasure, but when I needed a tough decision made, or when I needed to speak with someone on a sensitive subject, I was met with constant objections by staff on the lower end of the totem pole in other companies. Decisions could not be made without the direct consultation of the manager. Phone numbers could not be given out without direct consent from the manager. Mr. so-and-so was unavailable—or at least I was told he was unavailable until I managed to connect with his boss, who then immediately put me through.

One day I was particularly frustrated by this bit of business culture—the constant deferral to a figure of authority for matters of seemingly obvious natures or of even trivial importance. In organizing the aforementioned NBA event, I contacted a store that sold DVDs. I spoke to no fewer than four store “managers” (in succession, from one and then to another) before the “top manager” finally telephoned what he termed the “most top manager” and asked him for his opinion regarding whether their company should attend. The “most top manager” nearly shouted at the “top manager” for having made me wait so long (nearly forty minutes at this point), got on the phone with me, apologized for his employees’ apparent mental density, and asked if we could meet to discuss the details.

American businesspeople will undoubtedly encounter numerous confusing cultural differences between what they will assume to be generally congruent businesses. A little study and preparation goes a long way, but simply nothing can compare to having experienced doing business with the Chinese. When one becomes more accustomed to their particular quirks, the task actually becomes quite enjoyable—both for the American and his or her Chinese counterparts.